Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Perfect Adaption to Film

I’m a sucker for mini-series based on books that I liked. Maybe it’s the extended format which allows well-crafted screenplays to capture the deeper texture of a good novel. Once I’m hooked, I look forward to the six to ten hour take on a good novel.

Most recently, Comanche Moon captivated me. It’s based on the Larry McMurtry book of the same name. The novel, published in 1997, is one of my favorites. McMurtry’s unflinching, politically incorrect look at life on the Texas plains is funny, horrifying and brilliant.

The mini-series, which ran on CBS, is a little tamer, even though McMurtry wrote the screenplay and acted as producer. Steve Zahn, playing the character Robert Duvall made famous twenty years ago captures Gus McCrae’s impish, insightful nature. It only hurt me a little bit when my daughter walked in and said, “How can you watch this? It’s so boring.”

The ultimate faithful miniseries was War and Remembrance, based on the titanic novel by Herman Wouk published in 1978. The mini-series, which starred Robert Mitchum, used every scene in the book and much of the dialog. That’s why it ran more than thirty hours. I liked it but it was a little long.

My friends always say, “You should turn your books into a TV show or movie.” Yeah, good plan, I’ll get right on that. That is every writer’s dream. At least the one’s with houses and kids and a desire to eat well. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when I hear things like “Walking Money is so edgy and funny, I could see it on screen.” I just wish someone other than a Miami cop would say it to me. Maybe someone named David Chase or David Simon.

Some of the best advice I was ever given was by Elmore Leonard when I was just starting to write. He and his assistant, Gregg Sutter, encouraged me to look at the book like a movie with each chapter broken into scenes. It sounds simple but to a novice like me it was the Holy Grail. To this day I can focus on each scene of a novel without becoming overwhelmed with the idea of a larger project. Maybe that way of looking at the novels makes them seem like they would transition to film.

I do dream of that call from my agent asking if I would be interested in optioning either of my series. If a writer tells you otherwise they are probably lying. I’ll wait patiently for the call.

Until that happens I will settle for watching other books I like turned into movies or miniseries.

What are your favortie adaptions and, more importantly, why?


  1. Almost anything Clint Eastwood adapts from a novel works out well: Mystic River comes immediately to mind, Absolute Power was pretty good, and there's one whose title eludes me where he's a reporter investigating a man on death row. True Crime? I'm not sure.

    I'm so-so on his adaptation of Michael Connelly's Blood Work. I liked the movie okay and I think he was fine in it, although probably a bit old for the character, but I had problems with Buddy being the killer, which was a major change from the book.

    We've got producers sniffing around my books pretty intensely, but as I wrote my agent just last night:

    The publishing industry says, "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you," then grudgingly lets you in, although you can't get a compliment out of them; Hollywood says "I love you, I love you, I love you" and then does nothing.

  2. No Country For Old Men is faithful to the novel and I'll watch anything the Coen Brothers make.

    Mark, I'll keep your observation in mind in the new few weeks. On Monday I heard from a producer who wants to option Beneath A Panamanian Moon. That's great, but I know better than to cash that check.

    Still, as I said over at my place, it's like a smile from a pretty girl. She's just being nice, but it sure does make an old man's day.

  3. You both have quotable comments.


  4. Let's all forward James O's post to all of our famous Hollywood director and producer friends.

    I loved the book War and Remembrance and enjoyed the mini-series, but I think that's the last one I've watched on TV. I agree with David. I love the films of the Coen brothers.

  5. "War and Remembrance" was the sequel to "The Winds of War," which was also made into a terrific mini-series. (Herman Wouk adapted his book for the little screen). It remains one of my favorites. Both are available on DVD (6-series sets).

    As for features, Sidney Lumet's "The Verdict" (script by David Mamet from Barry Reed's novel) remains my favorite. Paul Newman's turn as the down-and-out lawyer seeking redemption is one of the great performances of his career.

    My first novel, "To Speak for the Dead" was turned into an "NBC World Premiere movie" under the title, "Jake Lassiter: Justice on the Bayou." Aha, there's no bayou in Miami, you say? They moved the production to New Orleans, among other changes too numerous to mention.

  6. One of the best book-to-screen adaptations in my estimation, was Sophie's Choice - right down to that blue seersucker suit.

    I also loved the Morse TV series and am considering buying the DVD set, just so I can wade my way though it again.

    My books were optioned for TV adaptation, however, I ended up taking back the option, for various reasons. The current economic and viewing-public climate means that it's really, really cheap for the networks to go for reality TV - not as much investment, and the audience is there (why-why-why? I ask). So many of the TV companies are placing their bets on cheap - in every sense of the word - TV. People are always telling me my books are perfect for adaptation, but the truth is that historical - and even ten years ago is historical, in terms of TV - is so expensive. Location costs are astronomical, and that's before you even get into costumes, cars, paying people to remove satellite dishes etc. My husband used to work in film/TV, and one of his first jobs - a gopher-type role - was to go to a location, knock on every door on the street and pay the owners cash to move cars, TV antennae, anything that didn't look right in a shot. He was given a big wad of cash and handed it out right left and center. OK, so it's off the subject, but you get my point.

    Oh, and here's a bit of advice from a friend of mine who is in the business of financing movies - and he's been involved in some biggies. They'll offer an author all sorts of deals, usually tempting you with the smaller advance and then percentage of profits. My pal says this is where the "CIF Rule" comes into play. Cash In Fist. Film Rights might be bought (the next stage after option) but anything can happen in the meantime. The star of the movie, for example could be found dead following a drug overdose, and everything can come clattering down. Get as much as you can in your hot little hand. Of course, you could win big-time on the percentage if you sell your rights for a movie and it flies, but you could also be left with very little for a big leap of faith.

    Mind you, would be nice to have the opportunity to negotiate. In the meantime, I'm in the business of writing books, so I'd better get on with it!

  7. Justice on the Bayou. Great.

    Jackie, that's my attitude too. I'll write and let agents sell.

    Just a little venting.


  8. Hey Jim,

    Always thought "Shogun" translated well to screen, as did "The Thornbirds" and of course "Roots."

    Now ask the question in reverse: What crappy novels mutated into good movies?

    I'll go first: "Bridges of Madison County." :)

  9. All right, P. j. I'll answer that:

    Jake Lassiter: Justice on the Bayou

    Too easy and obvious, sorry, Paul.


  10. There's only one for me. It's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Why? Okay, because the casting director was a genius and brilliant and finding Mary Badham was the find of a lifetime. And because Gregory Peck was flawless. But mostly because I saw the movie as a kid, probably when it first came out and read the book some months later. And as I read, I heard it because huge amounts of dialogue, mostly Scout's but sometimes Atticus or someone else, were incorporated into the movie. No one "improved" on Harper Lee's words. And very little was left out. And Boo Radley was exactly as he should appear.

  11. I find that I am usually disappointed by the film version of books that I have loved. It bothers me when they make drastic changes to the story. Minor ones I can handle. I have almost always enjoyed the book more. That being said, there are a few that I have really liked as well as the book. I'm going to date myself with some of these. I would have to agree that To Kill A Mockingbird was both a great book and movie. I also loved the movie version of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Many of Stephen King's books have made lousy movies but 2 that I really liked were Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemtion.

  12. Really liked the film/miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's "The Stand"

    Practically upchucked at the trailer, just the TRAILER mind you of Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising".

    Great post, Jim.


  13. I really liked the film version of THE WONDER BOYS, and of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. Those are probably my favorites. THE PRINCESS BRIDE was fabulous in both versions, too.

  14. THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, the Robert Mitchum picture made from the George V. Higgins novel. That's one that ought to be out on DVD, but isn't.

    It changes the ending, but in a way that seems to better point up some of the themes of the book. And it preserves quite a lot of dialog from a book that's almost ALL dialog.

  15. A good story with interesting character can make any media -
    film or book or CD - a winner.

    Having created the "Literary Cinema" program for the last four years, we have seen great audience reaction to a variety of authors; Mary Shelley, Richard O'Connell, Ernest Hemingway..tears are still shed when R.P. Murphey and Billy Babbit dies.

    That said, "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II" were better movies than Mario Puzo's pulpy books.

    I have to credit Andi for "To Kill A Mockingbird." Both the book and the movie complement each other.